Don't Cut the Cheese

March 1, 2004 Topic: Economics Tags: BusinessEmpireFree Trade

Don't Cut the Cheese

Mini Teaser: No more Brie, no more Stilton, no more Gorgonzola. Just what have Washington and Brussels got against cheese? Don't you know there's a war on?

by Author(s): Julia Watson

One of the world's great sensual experiences, exulted in daily across Europe, is illegal in the United States. That bite you may be about to take into an unctuous and intense young French raw milk cheese oozing off the edges of a chewy chunk of bread is against the law.

No raw milk cheese aged for less than sixty days may be imported into this country, nor sold in this country by local cheesemakers. So say the regulations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in force for the past half-century. Yet since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Americans began showing an interest in proper cheese, there hasn't been much difficulty in buying younger raw milk cheese treasures from France, England and Italy in American specialty food stores. Cheeses were sent without fanfare by FedEx direct to cheesemongers. But now the U.S. Bioterrorism Act (enacted in December 2003), which requires advance identifying paperwork for the import of all consumer goods, is likely to make it impossible any longer to slip these heavenly gems through the cracks.

And it doesn't stop there: age is no longer the only issue. The FDA is also considering mandating pasteurization of all cheeses, regardless of origin or age. This would be damaging enough to foreign exporters for a market as large as America. But now the regulations may go global. As a result of a proposal by the United States, the World Health Organization (WHO) is agitating to ban the sale by member-countries of any raw milk cheeses for trade to any country. If fully realized, the cumulative effect of these developments would be a death sentence on the international cheese industry.

The battle for imported cheeses and American-made artisan cheeses alike has become "pasteurized" versus "raw." The National Cheese Institute, the ninety-member American dairy industry association which together accounts for approximately 80 percent of the natural cheese, processed cheese and cheese products manufactured in the United States, is recommending mandatory pasteurization for all cheese milk. Artisan cheesemakers, usually small mom-and-pop entrepreneurs, are under the impression that the option to use raw milk is a campaign already fought and won in their favor. Not so fast. According to John Sheehan--director for the Division of Dairy and Egg Safety within the Office of Plant and Dairy Foods, part of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition--the FDA is "currently investigating all raw milk cheeses. Evaluation is under way right now; it's a priority this year. It's going to be comprehensive."

It could mean good-bye to those remarkable and, in many cases, internationally award-winning raw milk American artisan cheeses, for which the FDA previously felt that the sixty-day age minimum was adequate to protect the American consumer. Now they might also have to be pasteurized. Goodbye, too, to imported raw milk classics like Roquefort and Emmentaler, cook's staples Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gruyere, and essential standby Cheddar.

If you call the Fromegerie P. Jacquin in La Vernelle in France to speak to cheesemaker Pascal Jacquin, it's not "La Vie en Rose" that plays in your ear while you wait, but Pink Floyd's rebellious 1979 song "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2": "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control." Just after Christmas, a consignment of his underage award-winning goat cheeses was turned back to France. And say goodbye to Vacherin Mont d'Or, considered by many the most majestic of all cheeses. Under the new law, it will not be found in the United States again. Nor will the youthful Reblochon, Camembert de Normandie, Monsieur Jacquin's Selles sur Cher, Ste. Maure de Touraine, and young Valençay, and dozens of others from Europe. Rather than compromise the quality of his fresh young goat cheeses for markets elsewhere, Monsieur Jacquin is withdrawing them from American sale and instead creating for special U.S. export a pasteurized cheese he is calling "Rond Tradition." The real issue, however, is that it could become the only cheese he is allowed to export, if the who has its way.

Passionate cheese lovers and cheesemakers alike argue that pasteurization, by eliminating 90 percent of micro flora in the milk, destroys flavor and produces less complex, more uniform cheeses. Laura Werlin, author of the cheese bible, The New American Cheese, is clear that there is a distinction between pasteurized milk and raw milk cheeses. As she told me, "There are many wonderful complex pasteurized milk cheeses. But when you get into raw milk, you get into nuances of taste and flavor that can't possibly be there once the milk is pasteurized. Pasteurization eliminates beneficial bacteria as well as unwanted bacteria. Bacteria lend flavor and complexity."

And pasteurization doesn't guarantee to render a cheese safe. It could, in fact, make cheese more dangerous in some cases, since the natural flora in raw milk cheese can overcome pathogens.

Until World War II, cheesemaking in the United States, as overseas, was a local affair. Family dairies made cheeses from the raw milk of the cows they or their neighbors grazed. The milk, usually from a single source, was always traceable. When the war came, many cheesemakers were sent overseas to fight, and those who replaced them were not only less experienced but were expected to meet a huge government requirement for cheese to fuel the war effort. Quality and safety were sacrificed for the sake of mass manufacture, and a law was passed demanding pasteurization in cheesemaking unless the cheese was aged for sixty days under specified conditions. By 1949, all milk and dairy products were pasteurized. But, as Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, points out, the law "hasn't been enforced." Until now.

Europeans who have been guzzling unpasteurized dairy jewels for hundreds of years are baffled. Death by raw milk cheese? "It's possible", Smith DeWaal says. But the trouble is, none of the government institutions involved in the decision-making seem to agree against what in the raw milk we should be protected. They are each focused on a different organism. Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, formerly a top regulator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), says that the Centers for Disease Control "does not track illnesses by food--only by pathogen. Unpasteurized cheese is frequently the source of the most deadly pathogen Listeria monocytogenes." For John Sheehan's division of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the menace is E. coli, while the National Research Council's report, "Scientific Criteria to Ensure Safe Food" cites Salmonella. Each bacterium was the focus of its own discussion paper at the Food Safety and Inspection Service's 36th session in early January of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Consumers at risk over Listeria in any foodstuff, says Smith DeWaal, are the elderly and the pregnant (who become vulnerable to miscarriage if it enters their system). But how many miscarriages have been recorded through raw milk cheese consumption? None, in point of fact. "It's very hard to track", Smith DeWaal admits. "Miscarriages usually happen in private." That raw milk cheese "can kill is an assumption based on the fact that cheese carries Listeria mystogenes."

Cheeses have been under the microscope, quite literally, since, John Sheehan says, "[r]ecent research from South Dakota University in 1996 indicated the sixty-day aging period did not do much at all for E. coli. We have since confirmed it doesn't do much at all with Cheddar cheese with reference to E. coli."

When the 1996 South Dakota University's study was published, artisanal cheesemakers who had had no reports of food-borne illnesses relating to their own cheeses went to Dr. Catherine Donnelly, a respected food microbiologist and professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont, to study the study. When she examined the scientific literature, few of the disease outbreaks involved unpasteurized, hard cheeses. And in each of the outbreaks involving hard cheeses, the contamination appeared to have happened after aging, so pasteurization wouldn't have prevented them. In FDA tests, she says, pasteurized milk was "super-loaded with E. coli to levels [that] you'd never experience in the common milk supply."

Things got worse in 2003, when the National Research Council (NRC) published the report "Scientific Criteria to Ensure Safe Food" which included cheese. "If you haven't heard about this report yet", read a review in the industry journal Food Processing,

"there's a good chance you will in the future. . . . Among other reasons, the report is of interest because it is likely to prompt new legislative authority for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate food safety."

For their own protection, artisan cheese producers work to the FDA's HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) standards, though some perhaps less efficiently than others. Developed by Pillsbury, HACCP standards are science-based controls applied from the raw material phase to the finished product in order to prevent hazards that could cause food-borne illnesses in astronauts in space. Cheesemakers have found that application of HACCP rules has increased the quality and shelf-life of their artisan cheeses, as well as reduced their liability insurance. It is not in a small dairy farmer's interests to operate at less than the highest modern hygiene and production standards. "Good dairy management and excellent sanitation permit the safe manufacture of raw milk cheese in a variety of styles", states Debra Dickerson, the U.S. representative of Britain's Neal's Yard Dairy.

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